The guitar market is swamped with reissues, throwbacks, and nostalgia for all things retro. Not all players are looking for a period piece, though, and MJ Guitars has become a great option for less puritanical players who like the quality and design behind golden-era electrics but prefer a less rigid style agenda. Needless to say, the Duke Deville owes more than a thing or two to the Telecaster in terms of style, but features like a Duncan mini humbucker whose coils can be split provide more modern performance flexibility on top of the familiar snap, bite, and throaty rasp of a great Tele.
Familiar But Forward Looking
The Duke Deville comes in various wood combinations, as well as in a chambered version called the Duke Deville Special. Our review model, however, features a more traditional solid poplar body in a beautiful lake placid blue-style metallic finish. And though the body shape owes much to the Telecaster, there are hints of Les Paul Jr. in the more rounded contours. The maple neck is capped with a 22-fret rosewood fretboard that’s great for players who need access to that extra high D note and favor a longer 25 1/2" scale. The neck is slightly wider than a Telecaster, but the slim profile makes it feel fast. It’s bound to appeal to more modern-minded players who didn’t grow up with some of the fatter old Fender neck profiles. The neck has other very un-Fender characteristics, like the three-on-a-side tuning-peg arrangement—which is more than a little evocative of a PRS—and the asymmetrically placed dot inlays. The guitar showed up with delightfully low action, but those interested in monster bends will also be glad to know that the fretboard radius allows for bending all the way up to a major third before fretting out as you approach a perfect fourth.
There’s no shortage of very traditional T-style touches to satisfy old-school players, to, like the barrel-style compensated brass saddles and the string-through-body layout. But the double-action truss rod, precisely angled headstock, and strap-lock buttons are very functional deviations from the traditional T-style template.
The Duke Deville’s Seymour Duncan pickups generate a hit parade of T-style tones and are wonderfully balanced as well. The bridge pickup is Duncan’s Five-Two, which uses three alnico 5 magnets for the low strings and three alnico 2 magnets for the high strings in an effort to increase tonal balance. The decision to include a Duncan Custom mini humbucker in the neck position was an inspired choice, and the push-pull volume pot splits the coil to switch between true single-coil operation and humbucking mode. In single-coil mode, the Duncan delivers a lot of the snap and dynamics you’d expect from a T-style neck pickup. In humbucker mode, though, the MJ growls with thick, greasy, full-throated Keith Richards tones. Coupling neck and bridge pickups—and the ability to coil-split—gives you even more options.
Players who enjoy shaping their overdrive sounds and EQ via the guitar's controls will love the Duke Deville’s copious capabilities. The taper of the volume pot is smooth and linear, with no loss of high end when you dial it down. And the tone knob can be used for subtle high-end adjustments, or more aggressively for filtered, wah-like tones. Indeed, the Duke is very malleable, responding wonderfully to your touch and whatever pedals or amplification the player chooses. From the familiar Bakersfield country snap of the bridge pickup to the gutsy punch of the neck pickup and the clear chime of the center position, this guitar offers a delightful array of sonic possibilities.
The MJ Guitars Duke Deville is a high-end workhorse for the player who likes contemporary playability but is less interested in retro authenticity. The versatility and classic T-style tonality of this instrument are exceptional by any measure, and they’re very well suited to almost any musical style. In short, this guitar can do a lot—and it should, given the $2,395 direct price. That said, there are a lot of similarly priced instruments that don’t deliver nearly as much flexibility, so it’s a pretty decent value for a handbuilt, American-made guitar that could easily replace two with all its tone potential.